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Diary of a disaster: Living off the grid after Superstorm Sandy

November 12, 2012 06:00 AM ET

The biggest hassle is the network, though. That's because the outlet I generally use with Powerline Ethernet equipment to send networking signals over the house's electrical lines is not active. As a result, to get networking to part of the house, I need to set it up with an outlet that's about 10 feet away from the closest LAN switch. I use a Cat 5 jumper cable and everything is back online.

Many of our neighbors are running generators too. Up the street, one of our neighbors has a small Honda machine that puts out 1,000 watts, just enough for keeping the refrigerator on, charging phones and watching TV. Further up the block is a house with a 20,000-watt power source that runs on natural gas. The neighborhood sounds like a cross between an airport and a Go Kart track.

Sunday, Nov. 4: More gas needed

The downside of the generator is that it guzzles 8 to 10 gallons of gasoline a day, and there are no gas stations open around here. So we hit the road, heading 45 minutes north to Danbury, Conn., where the storm's impact is less dire.

gas cans lined up
The generator guzzles 8 to 10 gallons of gasoline a day, and gas is hard to find. It's best to keep several gas cans filled.

At a Mobile station right off of Route 84, we fill up the car as well as three 5-gallon gasoline cans and hightail it back home before the generator goes out.

It's getting expensive, costing us between $35 and $40 a day on generator fuel. Keeping it going for a month would add up to more than $1,000 -- more than three times what we spend on electricity for the whole house.

The worst part is that no matter how often I wash my hands, they always seem to smell of gas.

Monday, Nov. 5: Not hip to be square

This morning the local gas supply eased. I get into a routine of pumping 5 or 10 gallons of fuel in the morning before the stations sell out. Tempers are flaring and the police are on hand, just in case.

It feels like a big step forward not to have to drive 45 minutes each way for gas, burning a few gallons along the way. Ironically, throughout the storm's aftermath, diesel fuel is plentiful.

There's another downside to living off of a generator that is starting to become apparent. Smaller generators like the one I'm using don't deliver a smooth sine wave of alternating current that power plants provide via the grid. Rather, they create a simpler square wave, which causes lights to flicker and can damage computer equipment.

Fortunately, most of my office computers are laptops, which have batteries that act like power conditioners. I do experience an odd electrical problem, though. A power strip that I've used for years shorts out and makes the office smell like a potpourri of burnt plastic and ozone. It could just be an old and worn-out power strip, but I plan to send it back to the manufacturer for a forensic examination.

Tuesday, Nov. 6: Election Day

I get up early to vote. The polling place has power, but there are a lot of tired-looking people there who obviously don't have power at home.

While we have power in parts of the house, it's not really enough. The fuser in the color laser printer uses about 1,000 watts -- about 15% of the generator's output -- for a brief period, so whenever we use the color laser printer, the generator whines and speeds up to compensate. The lights dim simultaneously, with the brightness returning immediately after the printer's done.

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Be prepared for the next disaster

There's a lot you can do to minimize a disaster's impact on your life. Here's a checklist of items to do now to be prepared for disaster whenever it strikes:

  • Have flashlights ready with lots of extra batteries, especially D cells. Put them in a central location so that family members can grab them.
  • Have bottled water and nonperishable food on hand.
  • In winter, stock up on fireplace logs or get a gas- or kerosene-powered space heater and have matches and fuel at hand.
  • Consider getting a generator, even a small one, to keep lights, heat and computers running. Test it. If it runs on gasoline, get several cans ready.

When a storm is on its way:

  • Gas up your vehicle and get cash.
  • Clean out your ice chest and fill it with ice for perishable food.
  • Fully charge all laptops, phones and other electronic devices.
  • In winter, pack up warm clothes and sleeping bags.
  • If you need to leave, check your planned escape route and have a first aid kit with you. Don't forget to take key documents, such as household insurance policy and passports, as well as the external hard drive that holds your backups.
  • Check with neighbors to see if they need help or a way out.

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